Read CHAPTER X of The Bravo, free online book, by James Fenimore Cooper, on ReadCentral.com.

“We shall not spend a large expense of time,
Before we reckon with your several loves,
And make us even with you.”

MACBETH.

When the three gondolas reached the side of the Bucentaur, the fisherman hung back, as if he distrusted his right to intrude himself into the presence of the senate. He was, however, commanded to ascend, and signs were made for his two companions to follow.

The nobles, clad in their attire of office, formed a long and imposing lane from the gangway to the stern, where the titular sovereign of that still more titular Republic was placed, in the centre of the high officers of state, gorgeous and grave in borrowed guise and natural qualities.

“Approach,” said the Prince, mildly, observing that the old and half-naked man that led the victors hesitated to advance. “Thou art the conqueror, fisherman, and to thy hands must I consign the prize.”

Antonio bent his knee to the deck, and bowed his head lowly ere he obeyed. Then taking courage, he drew nearer to the person of the Doge, where he stood with a bewildered eye and rebuked mien, waiting the further pleasure of his superiors. The aged Prince paused for stillness to succeed the slight movements created by curiosity. When he spoke, it was amid a perfect calm.

“It is the boast of our glorious Republic,” he said, “that the rights of none are disregarded; that the lowly receive their merited rewards as surely as the great; that St. Mark holds the balance with an even hand, and that this obscure fisherman, having deserved the honors of this regatta, will receive them with the same readiness on the part of him who bestows, as if he were the most favored follower of our own house. Nobles and burghers of Venice, learn to prize your excellent and equable laws in this occasion, for it is most in acts of familiar and common usage that the paternal character of a government is seen, since in matters of higher moment the eyes of a world impel a compliance with its own opinions.”

The Doge delivered these preliminary remarks in a firm tone, like one confident of his auditors’ applause. He was not deceived. No sooner had he done, than a murmur of approbation passed through the assembly, and extended itself to thousands who were beyond the sound of his voice, and to more who were beyond the reach of his meaning. The senators bent their heads in acknowledgment of the justice of what their chief had uttered, and the latter, having waited to gather these signs of an approving loyalty, proceeded.

“It is my duty, Antonio, and, being a duty, it hath become a pleasure to place around thy neck this golden chain. The oar which it bears is an emblem of thy skill; and among thy associates it will be a mark of the Republic’s favor and impartiality, and of thy merit. Take it, then, vigorous old man, for though age hath thinned thy temples and furrowed thy cheek, it hath scarcely affected thy wonderful sinews and hardy courage!”

“Highness!” observed Antonio, recoiling apace, when he found that he was expected to stoop, in order that the bauble might be bestowed, “I am not fit to bear about me such a sign of greatness and good fortune. The glitter of the gold would mock my poverty, and a jewel which comes from so princely a hand would be ill placed on a naked bosom.”

This unexpected refusal caused a general surprise, and a momentary pause.

“Thou hast not entered on the struggle, fisherman, without a view to its prize? But thou sayest truly, the golden ornament would, indeed, but ill befit thy condition and daily wants. Wear it for the moment, since it is meet that all should know the justice and impartiality of our decisions, and bring it to my treasurer when the sports are done; he will make such an exchange as better suits thy wishes. There is precedent for this practice, and it shall be followed.”

“Illustrious Highness! I did not trust my old limbs in so hard a strife without hopes of a reward. But it was not gold, nor any vanity to be seen among my equals with that glittering jewel, that led me to meet the scorn of the gondoliers, and the displeasure of the great.”

“Thou art deceived, honest fisherman, if thou supposest that we regard thy just ambition with displeasure. We love to see a generous emulation among our people, and take all proper means to encourage those aspiring spirits who bring honor to a state, and fortune to our shores.”

“I pretend not to place my poor thoughts against those of my Prince,” answered the fisherman; “my fears and shame have led me to believe that it would give more pleasure to the noble and gay had a younger and happier borne away this honor.”

“Thou must not think this. Bend then thy knee, that I may bestow the prize. When the sun sets thou wilt find those in my palace who will relieve thee of the ornament at a just remuneration.”

“Highness!” said Antonio, looking earnestly at the Doge, who again arrested his movement in surprise, “I am old, and little wont to be spoilt by fortune. For my wants, the Lagunes, with the favor of the Holy St. Anthony, are sufficient; but it is in thy power to make the last days of an old man happy, and to have thy name remembered in many an honest and well meant prayer. Grant me back my child, forget the boldness of a heart-broken father!”

“Is not this he who urged us with importunity concerning a youth that is gone into the service of the state?” exclaimed the Prince, across whose countenance passed that expression of habitual reserve which so often concealed the feelings of the man.

“The same,” returned a cold voice, which the ear of Antonio well knew came from the Signor Gradenigo.

“Pity for thy ignorance, fisherman, represses our anger. Receive thy chain, and depart.”

Antonio’s eye did not waver. He kneeled with an air of profound respect, and folding his hands on his bosom, he said

“Misery has made me bold, dread Prince! What I say comes from a heavy heart rather than from a licentious tongue, and I pray your royal ear to listen with indulgence.”

“Speak briefly, for the sports are delayed.”

“Mighty Doge! riches and poverty have caused a difference in our fortunes, which knowledge and ignorance have made wider. I am rude in my discourse, and little suited to this illustrious company. But, Signore, God hath given to the fisherman the same feelings, and the same love for his offspring, as he has given to a prince. Did I place dependence only on the aid of my poor learning, I should now be dumb, but there is a strength within that gives me courage to speak to the first and noblest in Venice in behalf of my child!”

“Thou canst not impeach the senate’s justice, old man, or utter aught in truth against the known impartiality of the laws?”

“Sovrano mio! deign to listen, and you shall hear. I am what your eyes behold a man, poor, laborious, and drawing near to the hour when he shall be called to the side of the blessed St. Anthony of Rimini, and stand in a presence even greater than this. I am not vain enough to think that my humble name is to be found among those of the patricians who have served the Republic in her wars that is an honor which none but the great, and the noble, and the happy, can claim; but if the little I have done for my country is not in the Golden Book, it is written here,” as Antonio spoke, he pointed to the scars on his half-naked form; “these are signs of the enmity of the Turk, and I now offer them as so many petitions to the bounty of the senate.”

“Thou speakest vaguely. What is thy will?”

“Justice, mighty Prince. They have forced the only vigorous branch from the dying trunk they have lopped the withering stem of its most promising shoot they have exposed the sole companion of my labors and pleasures, the child to whom I have looked to close my eyes, when it shall please God to call me away, untaught, and young in lessons of honesty and virtue, a boy in principle as in years, to all the temptation, and sin, and dangerous companionship of the galleys!”

“Is this all? I had thought thy gondola in the decay, or thy right to use the Lagunes in question!”

“Is this all?” repeated Antonio, looking around him in bitter melancholy. “Doge of Venice, it is more than one, old, heart-stricken, and bereaved, can bear?”

“Go to; take thy golden chain and oar, and depart among thy fellows in triumph. Gladden thy heart at a victory, on which thou could’st not, in reason, have counted, and leave the interests of the state to those that are wiser than thee, and more fitted to sustain its cares.”

The fisherman arose with an air of rebuked submission, the result of a long life passed in the habit of political deference; but he did not approach to receive the proffered reward.

“Bend thy head, fisherman, that his Highness may bestow the prize,” commanded an officer.

“I ask not for gold, nor any oar, but that which carries me to the Lagunes in the morning, and brings me back into the canals at night. Give me my child, or give me nothing.”

“Away with him!” muttered a dozen voices; “he utters sedition! let him quit the galley.”

Antonio was hurried from the presence, and forced into his gondola with very unequivocal signs of disgrace. This unwonted interruption of the ceremonies clouded many a brow, for the sensibilities of a Venetian noble were quick, indeed, to reprehend the immorality of political discontent, though the conventional dignity of the class suppressed all other ill-timed exhibition of dissatisfaction.

“Let the next competitor draw near,” continued the sovereign, with a composure that constant practice in dissimulation rendered easy.

The unknown waterman to whose secret favor Antonio owed his success, approached, still concealed by the licensed mask.

“Thou art the gainer of the second prize,” said the Prince, “and were rigid justice done, thou should’st receive the first also, since our favor is not to be rejected with impunity. Kneel, that I may bestow the favor.”

“Highness, pardon!” observed the masker, bowing with great respect, but withdrawing a single step from the offered reward; “if it be your gracious will to grant a boon for the success of the regatta, I too have to pray that it may be given in another form.”

“This is unusual! It is not wont that prizes, offered by the hand of a Venetian Doge, should go a-begging.”

“I would not seem to press more than is respectful, in this great presence. I ask but little, and, in the end, it may cost the Republic less, than that which is now offered.”

“Name it.”

“I, too, and on my knee, in dutiful homage to the chief of the state, beg that the prayer of the old fisherman be heard, and that the father and son may be restored to each other, for the service will corrupt the tender years of the boy, and make the age of his parent miserable.”

“This touches on importunity! Who art thou, that comest in this hidden manner, to support a petition once refused?”

“Highness the second victor in the ducal regatta.”

“Dost trifle in thy answers? The protection of a mask, in all that does not tend to unsettle the peace of the city, is sacred. But here seemeth matter to be looked into. Remove thy disguise, that we see thee eye to eye.”

“I have heard that he who kept civil speech, and in naught offended against the laws, might be seen at will, disguised in Venice, without question of his affairs or name.”

“Most true, in all that does not offend St. Mark. But here is a concert worthy of inquiry: I command thee, unmask.”

The waterman, reading in every face around him the necessity of obedience, slowly withdrew the means of concealment, and discovered the pallid countenance and glittering eyes of Jacopo. An involuntary movement of all near, left this dreaded person standing singly, confronted with the Prince of Venice, in a wide circle of wondering and curious listeners.

“I know thee not!” exclaimed the Doge, with an open amazement that proved his sincerity, after regarding the other earnestly for a moment. “Thy reasons for the disguise should be better than thy reasons for refusing the prize.”

The Signor Gradenigo drew near to the sovereign, and whispered in his ear. When he had done, the latter cast one look, in which curiosity and aversion were in singular union, at the marked countenance of the Bravo, and then he silently motioned to him to depart. The throng drew about the royal person with instinctive readiness, closing the space in his front.

“We shall look into this at our leisure,” said the Doge. “Let the festivities proceed.”

Jacopo bowed low, and withdrew. As he moved along the deck of the Bucentaur, the senators made way, as if pestilence was in his path, though it was quite apparent, by the expression of their faces, that it was in obedience to a feeling of a mixed character. The avoided, but still tolerated Bravo descended to his gondola, and the usual signals were given to the multitude beneath, who believed the customary ceremonies were ended.

“Let the gondolier of Don Camillo Monforte stand forth,” cried a herald, obedient to the beck of a superior.

“Highness, here,” answered Gino, troubled and hurried.

“Thou art of Calabria?”

“Highness, yes.”

“But of long practice on our Venetian canals or thy gondola could never have outstripped those of the readiest oarsmen. Thou servest a noble master?”

“Highness, yes.”

“And it would seem that the Duke of St. Agata is happy in the possession of an honest and faithful follower?”

“Highness, too happy.”

“Kneel, and receive the reward of thy resolution and skill.”

Gino, unlike those who had preceded him, bent a willing knee to the deck, and took the prize with a low and humble inclination of the body. At this moment the attention of the spectators was drawn from the short and simple ceremony by a loud shout, which arose from the water at no great distance from the privileged bark of the senate. A common movement drew all to the side of the galley, and the successful gondolier was quickly forgotten.

A hundred boats were moving in a body towards the Lido, while the space they covered on the water presented one compact mass of the red caps of fishermen. In the midst of this marine picture was seen the bare head of Antonio, borne along in the floating multitude, without any effort of his own. The general impulsion was received from the vigorous arms of some thirty or forty of their number, who towed those in the rear by applying their force to three or four large gondolas in advance.

There was no mistaking the object of this singular and characteristic procession. The tenants of the Lagunes, with the fickleness with which extreme ignorance acts on human passions, had suddenly experienced a violent revolution in their feelings towards their ancient comrade. He who, an hour before, had been derided as a vain and ridiculous pretender, and on whose head bitter imprecations had been so lavishly poured, was now lauded with cries of triumph.

The gondoliers of the canals were laughed to scorn, and the ears of even the haughty nobles were not respected, as the exulting band taunted their pampered menials.

In short, by a process which is common enough with man in all the divisions and subdivisions of society, the merit of one was at once intimately and inseparably connected with the glory and exultation of all.

Had the triumph of the fishermen confined itself to this natural and commonplace exhibition, it would not have given grave offence to the vigilant and jealous power that watched over the peace of Venice. But amid the shouts of approbation were mingled cries of censure. Words of grave import were even heard, denouncing those who refused to restore to Antonio his child; and it was whispered on the deck of the Bucentaur, that, filled with the imaginary importance of their passing victory, the hardy band of rioters had dared to menace a forcible appeal, to obtain what they audaciously termed the justice of the case.

This ebullition of popular feeling was witnessed by the assembled senate in ominous and brooding silence. One unaccustomed to reflection on such a subject, or unpractised in the world, might have fancied alarm and uneasiness were painted on the grave countenances of the patricians, and that the signs of the times were little favorable to the continuance of an ascendency that was dependent more on the force of convention than on the possession of any physical superiority. But, on the other hand, one who was capable of judging between the power of political ascendency, strengthened by its combinations and order, and the mere ébullitions of passion, however loud and clamorous, might readily have seen that the latter was not yet displayed in sufficient energy to break down the barriers which the first had erected.

The fishermen were permitted to go their way unmolested, though here and there a gondola was seen stealing towards the Lido, bearing certain of those secret agents of the police whose duty it was to forewarn the existing powers of the presence of danger. Among the latter was the boat of the wine-seller, which departed from the Piazzetta, containing a stock of his merchandise, with Annina, under the pretence of making his profit out of the present turbulent temper of their ordinary customers. In the meantime, the sports proceeded, and the momentary interruption was forgotten; or, if remembered, it was in a manner suited to the secret and fearful power which directed the destinies of that remarkable republic.

There as another regatta, in which men of inferior powers contended, but we deem it unworthy to detain the narrative by a description.

Though the grave tenants of the Bucentaur seemed to take an interest in what was passing immediately before their eyes, they had ears for every shout that was borne on the evening breeze from the distant Lido; and more than once the Doge himself was seen to bend his looks in that direction, in a manner which betrayed the concern that was uppermost in his mind.

Still the day passed on as usual. The conquerors triumphed, the crowd applauded, and the collected senate appeared to sympathize with the pleasures of a people, over whom they ruled with a certainty of power that resembled the fearful and mysterious march of destiny.